I recently joined a University Debate Society. I had always been interested in the idea of structured discussion, and had in fact watched a couple of debates online. After joining it, I quickly became interested in the subtle form of a formal debate (as opposed to the content), and trying to imagine a “perfect” system (I think I may have been reading too much Asimov into real life!).
But although I continue to think about it, I haven’t yet found a solution. But meanwhile, whilst you wait, I thought I’d show you what I learned:
In the debate society, on the first day, they introduced me to various styles of debate used by different governments around the world. The one we came to use was called the British Parliamentary System. And although I fear I may misrepresent it, I feel fairly confident in getting the core of it across.
The debate begins with a proposition. For example: THB (this house believes) that Jules Verne should replace Shakespeare in Schools. The Opposition’s job is to Oppose this idea either with a new idea altogether, or simply with (what usually happens) the status quo.
In this style of debate, there are eight speakers: Four on each side. Each side is divided into two teams, who prepare separately. The Proposition starts (else there would be nothing for the Opposition to to oppose) and speakers are exchanged until the final two remain, who are responsible for summarizing the dialogue, whilst hopefully tying up any loose strings.
Consequently: The last speaker is the summary of the opposition.
Each individual argument typically take a particular form. One starts with an introduction; he then moves onto rebuttals (counter-arguments to the previous speaker if of course, there was a previous speaker!). Then he will introduce or reinforce a couple of core arguments, and finally he will summarize the argument (one of the many stages I tend to forget when debating myself).
Everything is timed (7 minutes per speaker, I think), and there are rules about when and how you can be interrupted, etc.
At first one might think, by looking at the above, that it all looks rather complex. Well, it isn’t really. You can in fact break most of the rules, which proved to be a little naive, but interesting nevertheless. I quickly learned that beyond a few details, most of the above just comes naturally.
Then, of course, there may be the opposite inclination that supposes the above system is actually too obvious to need explanation. This I would also oppose by pointing out some of the subtleties that do not arise “naturally”:
For example: the fact that the debate consists of 8 alternating speakers, as opposed to two, or six, or any other number. Once I was used to the 8 speaker system, trying a 6 speaker system was surprisingly jarring!
Another example of what makes this system unique is the fact that the last two speakers are responsible for summarizing the debate (from both perspectives). I would also argue that this does not come naturally, but it certainly makes the debates much easier to grasp!
So, in summary, I would assert that this style isn’t too obvious, but it still bares some structure, and it is a system I grew more comfortable with over time. I hope I provided you with an interesting summary, and I would be very much intrigued by any comments that you may have on the subject!