Julian Bell, Head of English and Debating at Godolphin and Latymer School, offers his thoughts on the importance of debating
Like everything else since the coronavirus struck, debating has been turned upside down.
Classrooms once filled with the sounds of young people engaged in passionate, engaged discussion in their debating clubs are empty, as schools remain in lockdown. Competitions have been cancelled up and down the land. Parliament is shut, and politicians once divided by bitter arguments over Brexit have buried their differences as the country unites to fight the coronavirus.
The BBC’s Question Time takes questions from a remote audience, with panellists in the studio keeping a safe distance from each other. Friends and families debate the latest Downing Street briefing via social media, while many school debating clubs – my own included – are using technology to run virtual debates.
Although debating is not the same as it was (nothing is), it is more important than ever at this time of crisis.
Sooner or later, we will emerge from this crisis. We don’t know what the world will look like when we do. The one thing we do know is that it will be profoundly changed. This change will present an opportunity. The world may get better, or it may get worse. Much will depend on how we choose to engage with the issues at hand. Debating cultivates qualities which help people to engage with the world better.
What are these qualities? What does a good debater look like?
- A good debater is open-minded
Surely debating is all about proving that you are right and the other side is wrong? Shouldn’t you be closing your mind to other points of view?
If you make no attempt to understand why the other side is saying what they’re saying, you’ll lose. If your speech is the length of a social media post, you’ll lose. If your only form of argument is to keep repeating the same thing because you are absolutely certain it is true, you’ll lose. And if you are incapable of seeing the world from any point of view other than your own, you’ll lose every debate in which you have to argue a case you don’t agree with – i.e. about half of them.
On the other hand, if you take the trouble to understand both, or all, sides of a question, you’ll win. If you listen to those who disagree with you – really listen, until you understand why they’re saying what they’re saying – you’ll win. If you construct your arguments carefully and thoroughly, brick by brick, taking nothing for granted, constantly questioning your own assumptions, you’ll win.
Debating makes you more open-minded and willing to listen to people who disagree with you.
- A good debater thinks clearly
The great thing about being a debater is that no one lets you get away with anything. If your arguments are illogical, or based on error, or filled with fallacies, the other side will call you out. And, of course, you are constantly trying to call the other side out. So the more debates you take part in, the better you will get at examining your own arguments and beliefs, to make sure they make sense, and the less likely you will be to be taken in by bad arguments, distortion and dishonesty on the part of other people. This is a vital skill in a world of fake news and conspiracy theories.
Debating helps you to think hard and clearly, in a way that will make you better at solving problems.
- A good debater has empathy
Because you don’t get to choose your side of the motion in a debate, you will often have to argue for something you don’t agree with. If you are going to do that successfully, you have to enter into the mind of someone else, someone who sees the world in a completely different way from you, and, just for a moment, see things as they do. Even if you are arguing for something you believe in, you have to enter into the other side’s way of thinking in order to better challenge it. In debates, I’ve seen students from Israeli families argue for the Palestinian cause; I’ve seen devout Catholics argue for abortion rights; I’ve seen gay students argue against same-sex marriage. They may not have changed their minds at the end of it, but at least they came away understanding the people they disagreed with a bit better.
Debating helps you to understand people who are different from you.
- A good debater treats other people with respect
If you shout at the other side in a debate, you’ll lose. If you refuse to listen to them, you’ll lose. If you accuse them of being bad people for disagreeing with you, you’ll lose. If you call them names, you’ll lose. On the other hand, if you treat the people you debate with respectfully, as opponents, not enemies, and focus on arguments, not personalities, you’ll win. Wouldn’t it be a better world if everyone behaved like this?
Debating makes you treat other people better.
- A good debater knows about, and is interested in, the world around them
In order to be properly informed for debates, a good debater will watch, read and listen to the news in an active, intelligent way. A good debater will read articles longer than a Twitter post or an Instagram meme. A good debater will be careful with what they read, will judge how accurate it is, how much bias there is in it, will notice what the writer chooses to put in and what they choose to leave out. A good debater will listen to versions of current events they don’t agree with (because one day they might have to argue for them). A good debater will take an interest both in the small details of the news and in the wider issues and forces behind them. A good debater will work out why things happen as well as knowing what happens.
Debating helps you to understand the world.
When the virus finally recedes, and we begin to remake our world, it will be a time not only of opportunity, but also of danger. The world could fall into the hands of people who are closed to ideas that are not their own, who distort language to trick and manipulate people, who care little for fact and logic, and who treat those who disagree with them with contempt.
Or, it could be led by people who are open-minded, who think clearly, who have empathy and respect for people with different views, and who take the time and trouble to inform themselves about the world fully and fairly.
These are the people who will make our world better. Anyone who has done debating is more likely to be that sort of person.
When this current crisis passes – as it will – we will need debating more than ever.
Julian Bell is Head of English and Debating at Godolphin and Latymer School and also offers training and consultancy in debating and public speaking for teachers and students. His book, The Debating Book: everything you ever need to know about debating will be published in September 2020. Find out more at debatingforeveryone.com.