Debaters, do you want to win rounds? Do you want to influence people? Well, look no further, because Jesse Thompson has you covered! Today on Rock On Debate, we share a bite-sized episode put together by Jesse Thompson - former Speech and Debate coach and educator who has over ten years of experience teaching college-level Philosophy courses. Jesse has a Masters in Philosophy and Education, and has put up with Marcus Viney as a friend for over a decade (no small feat). He wants to help debaters avoid three common argumentative mistakes that he sees when judging rounds, and you should check it out!
Script of Jesse's "Three Common Debate Argumentative Mistakes":
Today I will be giving some advice to more experienced debaters that should help you avoid some common argumentative mistakes I’ve come across. First, I should say that this focuses on the argumentative side of the competition. Debate is a highly varied event, and some people get away with these errors while others don’t. However, they are flaws in rhetoric that can lead to losing rounds. The three mistakes I want to mention are: one, use of conflicting cards, two, substantiating basic values or principles, and three, connecting principles or theories to your position. These are not in order of importance.
So, what do you do when your opponent delivers a speech with a piece of evidence that conflicts with a card you have? Say you are debating organic farming and your opponent cites evidence that organic farming requires less tilling, reducing soil erosion, while you have a card that claims it requires more tilling. What I often see happen is for a debater to respond by focusing on their conflicting card in the next speech or rebuttal. This is the mistake. When debaters cannot agree on the facts of an issue, and simply bat competing evidence back and forth, the judge is usually only left with really one choice: “whose evidence do I find more believable?” A discerning judge will refrain from letting a situation like this fall to either side, but I’m sure quite often judges find themselves agreeing with one side or the other. Engaging in this type of “card competition” leaves you at the mercy of the judge’s whims, which is not where you want to be. So, what should you do instead?
When evidence conflicts, the way to come out ahead is to drop the talk of the conflicting data itself, and focus on other ways to promote your evidence over theirs. So instead of simply repeating your card yet again, you need to address one of the following two things: The first option is to focus on why your evidence should be preferred. If your card provides more recent data, is a metastudy that compiles multiple studies while your opponent’s does not, comes from a source that is more reliable than your opponent’s, or has some quality like improved sample size that means it should be preferred, then focus on those differences. Not all data is equal, and ignoring these important aspects of your card leaves you at a standstill. Two, you can attack your opponent’s reasoning by indicating a fallacy they may have committed, or pointing to how they may be mis-using their evidence or don’t understand it properly. For example, if you opponent is arguing that Russia’s military could contend with the U.S. because they have the same number of tanks, coming back with your card that says they have fewer tanks is much less effective than pointing out that Russia’s tanks are decades older than the U.S., putting them at a significant disadvantage. Taking the prep time to really evaluate your opponent’s conflicting card can be very useful and worth the time.
But the best move you can make is to turn your opponent’s evidence against them. For example, if you are debating drug legalization and your opponents present a card that cites low rates of recovery from drug addiction, arguing that we need strong drug laws to prevent higher rates of addiction, you could argue that the very mechanisms of drug prohibition are what make those rates so low and that legalization would actually improve them, turning your opponent’s card into a benefit for your side. Remember that these strategies are not mutually exclusive. You can use both at the same time for a strong rejection of your opponent’s evidence.
The bottom line is that simply standing up and saying “my opponent is wrong” is not a debate, and that is essentially what you are doing by just reading a card that conflicts with theirs. This is one of the main skills that these events should teach: how to engage with those who disagree rather than only continuing to disagree on the basic context of the issue. Your judges may not universally recognize the superiority of this technique, but on the whole it will improve your chances. More importantly it will help develop skills you will use over and over outside of academic environments.
Next is the question of how to support some of the most basic claims any position relies on. In LD for example, you will often see values like “respecting human life”, or “protecting biodiversity” made explicitly, and they are at least implicit in any debate. However, they often go unchallenged and unsupported. You may feel like it is obvious that “biodiversity” is a good thing, and that you don’t need to provide additional reasons to explain its goodness. I would challenge you with this: if it is so obvious, then you should be able to make a short, simple statement reinforcing its goodness that will enhance the clarity of your position and make your opponent’s job more difficult. But… if it is not as obvious or simple as you thought, then a lack of investigation into the complexity behind that claim leaves you very vulnerable to having one of your fundamental values brought into question. Ask yourself, can I explain simply and clearly why something like “biodiversity”, or “being healthy” or even “protecting human life” is a good thing? If not, then you need to either investigate the ways that value might be attacked or supported, or reexamine your use of that value.
So the first mistake here is to leave your most basic principles or values open to attack. The second is to leave your opponent’s principles or values unquestioned. If your opponent is arguing for an improvement in the minimum wage on the basis of “respecting human dignity”, don’t simply let them have that for free. Asking a simple question like “Why is human dignity important?” will leave many competitors floundering to provide a coherent response. That is because the answer to that question is actually very complicated and they are unlikely to have the ability to answer it easily. You will likely see a response like “because everyone deserves human dignity”, which can easily be rejected as circular and will make your opponent appear unprepared to support their own claims. So the second lesson here is: question everything. If your opponents have an answer, you have lost very little. If they don’t, you have won a lot.
This is again a valuable skill that goes well beyond the competition itself. The realization that the basic values and concepts thrown around in our public discourse are actually much more complex than they seem is a useful thing in itself. Even a brief dive into the issue of something as commonly discussed as “rights”, or the concept of “what is natural” reveals that they are issues that can take trained academics books worth of material to support. Having an ear for those concepts and a skeptical eye towards simplistic use of them prevents you from letting other people do your thinking for you.
The last error is related to the second, and involves throwing out principles or theories that you don’t end up connecting to your case. I have seen so many debates where a competitor begins by stating their case is based on Kantian morality, or the political philosophy of John Rawls, without presenting any explanation of what that basis is and then dropping any reference to it for the rest of the debate. This is another example of producing unnecessary vulnerabilities. A skilled debater will not allow you to claim that your position is based on a Hobbesian state of nature without pressing you on how that theory supports your case or how well you understand it. Presenting theories that you are not prepared to defend or explain only open you up to embarrassment if that theory is called into question. If you are not prepared to defend it or use it, it is best to drop it as the basis of your position.
Secondly, your case can be significantly strengthened by reliance on a theory that you do understand well. If you are arguing for reduced prison sentences of non-violent crimes, your argument could benefit immensely from a good understanding of Kant’s notion of human dignity or a clear concept of the utilitarian notion of harm. By consistently directing the debate back to the principles or theories you set out at the beginning, you can move the debate into territory that you are uniquely prepared to defend. Imagine being able to legitimately say “Judge, I have argued from the beginning that long prison sentences for non-violent crimes is an affront to human dignity, a claim which my opponent has been unable to reject”. If you can rely on those principles you will have a case that most competitors will be unable to make headway against. But if you don’t have a clear understanding of them yourself, or don’t end up using them, they will do you little good.
This too has use outside of competition. Sounding good and arguing well do not always overlap. While there are debaters who succeed by managing to sound confident and correct without actually saying much, even they would benefit by additionally having clear understandings of how their arguments work. If you are interested in more than just winning, and have at any point in your life an interest in truth or knowledge, this is a requirement.
Just a final reminder, these are things that should only be focused on once the basics of managing a debate have been solidified. There are countless mistakes debaters can make, and while these are errors that take some effort to fix, they can make a huge difference in the number of rounds you win. Hopefully it is also clear that these are skills that will improve your ability to navigate the world around you and come to your own conclusions. You will find that many people are eager to do your thinking for you, to hand you easy answers and lead you along to their conclusions. Only by doing the hard work of developing your own reasoning skills can you secure the ability to think for yourself.
Thank you so much to Jesse for sharing his swag and his insights with debaters!
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