Dec 9, 2007

how to debate without sounding like a jerk

Being aggressive is essential in a debate. You have to appear confident in your arguments and strong in your refutations. But what happens when your opponent lacks that same confidence?

A debater writes,
At a recent tournament, I made my opponent cry because I crushed the criterion of utilitarianism with the slavery argument--saying that it leads to a tyranny of the majority, which would justify slavery. I was wondering if that was a bad thing, because my coach says, "Always be polite while debating, and if you are able to destroy your opponent's argument, destroy it politely." I attempted to be polite, yet the tears still came and my judge docked points because I was "rude." Any tips on how to "destroy" my opponent's arguments politely?
That's a tough call--without being there, it's impossible to know what your tone of voice was, precisely what words you used, etc. And sometimes it's just not your fault. I had a competitor one time who, frustrated because she had never heard of a particular philosophy before, broke down during the round and ran out crying. Her opponent hadn't done anything wrong--he was unfailingly polite in his presentation.

That said, here are some general things to do / watch for:

1. Pay attention to your opponent's experience level. If you can tell they're a rookie, ease up a bit. If they don't understand something, and ask for clarification in CX, provide it for them, even if it gives them an avenue to attack you. The judge will appreciate the fact that you're helping the educational purpose of the activity.

2. Use less combative language. Instead of saying "My opponent would justify slavery..." say, "If we affirm the resolution, we might justify slavery." The "we" makes it sound inclusive for all, making the same point while less pointedly attacking the other side. Don't say "evil" or "heinous" or "disastrous," which, in some arguments, will make *you* sound unreasonable or dogmatic, anyway.

3. If you must talk about your opponent, include specific phrasing to make them sound reasonable. After all, they're obligated to uphold that side of the resolution not for personal reasons, but because that's how it works. Say, "My opponent's choice of utilitarianism is well-intentioned, but flawed, since valuing the greater good over individual happiness can lead to persecution of a minority. I'm sure my opponent would agree that slavery is a dreadful consequence of such logic, so we must look to my criterion of individual rights in this round...."

4. Breathe deeply. Relax. Smile. If you seem uptight, you'll seem more jerk-ish.

5. Look at the judge. Furrowed brow? Stern gaze? It's probably a cue to back off.

6. Record yourself debating, either on video or audio. Listen to your vocal quality. Look at your body language, your gestures and posture, your facial expressions. Do they radiate confidence or arrogance?

Most important, persist in your willingness to ask about these things. Such honest self-appraisal will carry you far.


Anonymous said...

Watch the presidential debate you will learn a lot , one thing any debater should keep in mind is to respect every word of your opponent.but at the same time show no mercy, your main aim is to convince the judge that your side is better than his.

Jim Anderson said...

anonymous, but also remember that the judge values truth, education, and the overall ethos of debate over petty or vindictive or weasely behavior. I fear that a "show no mercy" attitude will lead a debater down the path toward jerkishness, and toward alienating opponent and judge. Debate is, after all, a human--and humanistic--activity.

TheTachyix said...

I'll second some of the list and add some as well:

1. Use fewer imperatives. "My opponent HAS to agree. The judge MUST vote neg." Two reasons for this: many people don't like having words (or thoughts) put in their mouth. I know I don't like this even if I happen agree with the arguments that MUST be right. Secondly, many debaters have a disturbing tendency to copy other's rhetoric. If you speak aggressively, there is a good chance your opponent will respond in kind, maybe without even knowing it.

2. Breathe. It physically forces you to slow down. What you say can then be written.

3. In cross-examination, ask questions. Don't make arguments then haphazardly add a question mark at then.

Aaron said...

Be aware of your physical presence. If you are a large person or your opponent is very small, then you could come off as a bully even if you aren't that aggressive. Likewise, you can trap a larger opponent into appearing like a bully.

Eugene Harvey said...

I found the cards from Becky Fischer very helpful. She is very insightful in her vehement affirmation of the dynamics of the escalation of transgressions on the socio-American model.

It would be extremely helpful if you were so inclined to procure more cards for my 5th contention on my affirmative case.

Sim said...

As a side note, I've become disillusioned with the "slavery kills utilitarianism" argument, because it's solely a defeat on Bentham, and not necessarily Mill.

And I've been on the recieving end of such a vicious beating, so I really appreciate this article. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Yep. I've had the same problem. I've lost countless rounds because of being 'over-aggressive' and even 'over-passionate.' I try whatever I can to nix the problem, if one exists, but it ends with no success. Curse subjectivity!

Jim Anderson said...

musicguy, at that point, you seriously ought to consider seeing a voice coach.

Jesus Robles said...

Do such coaches exist?
Debate is a fun, simple thing to do, but all my hard work goes to waste when I get a ballot that says, "Aff: Be Nice! :)"

Angela Lisbeth Starfruit said...

This is fantastic. I've been docked points for apparently acting 'cocky' and 'rude'. Not fun, but these tips will help next weekend at my JV tournament...