Few extracurriculars can boast the same rich history as debate societies. Their roots reach as far back as the political and philosophical debates of Ancient Greece. The earliest prototypes of modern-day debate societies were founded in the 1700s during the Age of Enlightenment.
Debate has grown in popularity and is now commonplace in colleges and high schools, however, unlike other extracurriculars such as sports or arts, it is relatively unknown to those who do not participate in it themselves.
To help educate the Vassar community more about debate, the Vassar Debate Society, or VC Debate for short, explains more about the nuts and bolts of competitive debate and offer the members’ own personal insights. These current and former members have debated since high school and middle school and are sharing their vast stores of experience and expertise.
Debate comes in various forms, like the British Parliamentary and American Parliamentary styles most common for VC Debate, but the basics are the same. Debaters are assigned to proposition or opposition sides of a motion. The motions can either be prepared beforehand or impromptu as well. Prepared motions allow teams to research in advance of a competition, whereas impromptu motions are prepared with limited time and resources.
Each side has multiple debaters and is designated as either constructive or rebuttal speakers. Constructive speakers build up their side’s arguments, while the final rebuttal speakers focus solely on arguing why their side should win the overall debate using only the arguments previously presented. The judges score the teams based on content, style and strategy, and they have the final say in deciding the winning team.
Debate, as is apparent, involves many practical skills. Much like former Co-President, Ria Altman ’19 explained in an emailed statement, “You learn the art of persuasion. Very good debaters are actually really good at making very simple arguments sound complex, and nuanced.”
Former VC Debate member Josh Kim ’20 elaborated on the intricacies of debate, add- ing, “You have this fragmented knowledge in your head, but once you debate you’ve got to organize that into a solid argument. You’ve got to connect the dots. It really helps you get organized with your thoughts, your knowledge [and] your argumentative skills.”
The pursuit of knowledge is another appealing aspect of debate. For Co-President Madeleine Cavanagh ’18, debate is a means of learning more about politics and feminism, her main areas of academic and personal interest.
As Altman pointed out in an emailed statement, pursuing knowledge is also about open-mindedness: “A good debater tries to keep up with current events in the world while actively trying to understand both (or all) of the sides surrounding the issue.”
Naturally, the academic fields that one is inclined toward make for a more pleasurable debate. Kim and Cavanagh both agreed that such topics are more comfortable for them, and for Cavanagh this allows her to be confident taking risks and experimenting with new ideas. Generally speaking, Altman thinks that fun debates are those covering topics that people are invested in and have convincing arguments on both sides, which boosts the competitive drive to beat opponents.
When asked about the best kind of opponent to debate against, Cavanagh responded by saying, “Even when I lose, I come out feeling as though I’ve learned something and improved.” Kim agreed, adding, “It’s actually fun to find rebuttals to good arguments. The better the opponent team is, the more fun it is.” Skilled debate does not have to be a zero-sum game or a winner-takes-all; both sides can benefit.
Surprisingly, Altman finds witty and sarcastic debaters most fun. In her words, “Debaters that can make you laugh while also sounding intelligent are the best. It’s easier to stay engaged and gives you something to want to be.” The audiences of satire and political comedy shows certainly agree with her.
But of course, debate has its own conflicts too. The qualities that make the best opponents also make the worst opponents. Kim was more than ready to explain: “The least fun opponents are the ones who are excessively aggressive because all they want to do is just to win … [They] don’t have basic manners and are just barraging points of information, for example, or they themselves know what they are saying is b******* but they just have to say b*******.” In other words, they do not share the mindset that both sides can benefit without being the winner.
Cavanagh and Altman consider the worst debates to be those where one or both sides miss the main argument of debate. In Cavanagh’s view, as she explained, “[The worst debates are ones where] both sides are talking past each other. Engaging with opposing ideas is such a foundational aspect of debate, so when it feels as though that’s not happening, it can be frustrating.”
In a similar vein, Altman thinks, “The least fun [debaters] are know-it-alls that insensitively state arguments as facts without realizing that they are arguments…meaning you can argue them … It makes things very frustrating because you’re essentially asked to quietly listen to their nonsense for seven minutes.”
Just like the qualities of the best and worst debaters, where topics of interest inspire interesting arguments, topics like economics for Altman and Cavanagh make skillful or inventive debate difficult. In Kim’s eyes, any topic that has not been adequately prepared for can be very unenjoyable.
However, according to Altman, “Preparation into debate is not as intense as I imagine people think it is. It just includes having the Guardian app on your phone and being willing to talk to people [about] tough situations.”
On the other hand, others might argue that the time commitment necessary to prepare for debates can be a big downside. Kim singled out time commitment and preparation time as his main motives for not joining VC Debate this year.
Some may look at the coaches, practices, tournaments and the overall competitive nature of debate and draw parallels to sports. However, the interviewees argued across the board that the closest equivalent would actually be theater.
Cavanagh elaborated, stating, “I think debate is more similar to theatre in that it’s highly performative. A good debate speech isn’t just about strong argumentation, it’s also about presenting your ideas in a way that engages your audience.”
Altman and Kim echoed similar sentiments, particularly in terms of swaying the judge. Altman wrote, “You need to be able to put on a good show, because even if you entirely disagree with the viewpoint you’ve been randomly assigned to defend, judges look for confidence and sureness in your speeches,” while Kim expressed, “You gotta have some feelings…some emotions…exuding out from you into your argument.” It can be concluded that, just like in real-life politics, winning competitive debate is as much a battle of ideas as it is a battle of appearances.
The main reason Cavanagh has kept debat- ing with VC Debate is because, as she stated, “[Its community] is filled with people who care about the world and who invest time and intellectual labour engaging with it.” Altman thinks so too: “The people that I have met in the larger debate community are ‘usually’ very well-rounded and thoughtful people who want to actively participate in discourse.”
For prospective debaters or for those whose interests are piqued, Altman wants to clear up some of the misconceptions that she sees applied to debate. “I think that people underestimate the bond that we debaters have with each other.
For example, tournaments are real bonding experiences. We get a huge Airbnb and spend all night talking and getting to know each other… It really is an activity for everyone. I don’t have the ‘sophisticated’ language of some of the debaters that I go against, but I have managed to win rounds and proceed into out-rounds just the same.”
She understands the complicated nature of debating and judging but believes it is worth it, continuing, “The format of debate that Vassar participates in really does care more about the content of speeches than how intelligent-sound- ing the speaker is.”
Altman concluded, “I honestly think that people have a misconception about the skills that one should have before going to tournaments. That being said, judging can be brutal, but it’s manageable for the average person for sure.”