Why Members of the Debate Society Dread Interregnum
The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.
My freshman year the weekend before Interregnum, I was on a road trip to Vermont with the Debate Society. Kathryn Caswell, then a sophomore from the House of Queen Elizabeth I, jokingly said “you know, I don’t think I’d ever debated an Interregnum round that didn’t make me want to cry.”
The rest of the upperclassmen in the car hummed in agreement. It was an exaggeration, since debaters generally like the idea of Interregnum debates, but everyone got the joke. I didn’t really get it until after my first day of rounds.
This year, only about 20% of the Debate Society is excited about debating for Interregnum, though about 80% of their debaters are planning on participating. This is not because the motions merit poor discussion, and not always because debates are lackluster, but because the treatment of debaters by spectators and other competitors, puts undue pressure on them for perfection and unwavering dedication for the duration of the week.
Members of the debate society generally receive more respect at tournaments hosted by secular schools. The fact that members of our own community, many of whom are representatives of Christianity, show more disrespect to speakers than secular schools is a testament to our need for improvement.
“I’ve heard that debating for Interregnum is something I should experience, but I would probably not want to do it ever again,” says debater and freshman from the house of Lewis, Noah Hines. “I’ve been advised to stay off twitter since people generally aren’t very civil.”
Given this dissatisfaction with our debates and the effects this may have on the future of Interregnum debate, perhaps it’s time to make some changes to how we enter these debates.
When people write debate motions, they typically draw from a controversy in current events, rapidly growing ideologies, or discussions from a local community. Before writing a motion, the writer will analyze the arguments for both sides and decide whether the motion is balanced.
This means both sides of the debate will have multiple arguments to run that are truthful in nature, potentially persuasive, and present in public discourse. In some cases, a motion may be unbalanced but this does not make it impossible for debaters to create persuasive arguments that can win a round. In any case, good motion writers will create a motion all debaters will be comfortable discussing, granting no one a morally indefensible position.
Academics Coordinator Elle Rogers, who will be writing this year’s motions, says the motions aim at these kinds of discussions considering the goal of “[encouraging] students to seek proper order in their lives and communities, and to confront areas of internal and external chaos.” On behalf of the Interregnum committee, she says “our hope is that this year’s Interregnum debate motions spark conversations about the right arrangement of our own loves and the loves of society.”
Keeping these goals in mind, perhaps our debates can foster these discussions rather than talk of drama and unnecessary offense.
The point of a debate motion, and a debate round in general, is for the teams to become the spokespeople for those who genuinely believe the case debaters are being asked to run. A team as ambassadors of a belief should approach the round as an opportunity to compare the ideas in an objective way that is still aimed at searching for the truth surrounding a given topic.
A failure to do this shows disrespect to the people who may hold the belief they are asked to defend, and intentionally dodging the burden to defend these cases implies that the belief is not worthy of contention. This means it is the job of the debaters to respect the arguments the motion is asking them to support and argue them to the best of their ability. It also shows respect to the other debaters in the round, since shifting the burdens of the debate around can leave them either with no grounds to form an argument on or could leave them forced to argue in favor of an idea they find themselves morally at odds with.
“Some people mistakenly think debating means finding or creating a position that no one can possibly disagree with, making your opponents look ridiculous or evil. Real debates involve evaluating and weighing real tradeoffs between two sides which both have a legitimate case to be made for them. This is harder but infinitely more valuable,” says Debate Society Coach, Josiah Peterson.
Avoiding these types of arguments will enrich the quality of discourse we get over this upcoming week and decrease the likelihood of putting debaters in an uncomfortable position.
In the debate context here at King’s, debates are motivated by a desire for intellectually robust discussion and a pursuit of truth. As we approach Interregnum, it gets easy to forget about the purpose of debate outside of winning a round and getting points for your house.
If you are debating, consider the reason you are participating in rounds as you prepare. Consider what you are being asked to argue and discuss what is true rather than what will win over the judges and audience.
Consider what you are asking your classmates to argue and decide whether it is fair. Most importantly, consider the relevance and nuance of your arguments, and choose quality debate over an easy win, which is often deceptive.
Lucas Ebel, a debater and junior from the house of Bonhoeffer reflects on his participation last year, saying “Interregnum debates often involve personal attacks to score points, and rarely result in meaningful engagement with the motion at hand.”
To make sure all debaters are comfortable and enjoy their Interregnum as much as others who don’t debate, keep in mind the way you craft your arguments and how they respond to the motion and the arguments of your peers.
As spectators of these debates, also consider the position of the debaters you are watching. In some cases, there may be unexperienced debaters who are stepping out of their comfort zone to compete for their houses. When they stumble on their words or can’t complete an idea, be gracious instead of grilling them for their mistake.
All debaters make them.
There will be debaters who have not debated for a year or more, or debaters who are not familiar with the parliamentary format. There will be Debate Society members preparing for their tournament on Friday, freshmen experiencing their first Interregnum, students coming directly from work to compete, and upperclassmen tired from weeks of intense study. Sure, they may not have a perfect performance, but consider the constraints on their performance. Undoubtedly, each student would appreciate the same grace the debaters are asking of you.
The lasting impact of these debates comes after the round.
Don’t hesitate to engage with the ideas outside the room. Talk with your house. Tweet (graciously). Write articles. This is the true purpose of these debates.
The reality is that the discussion doesn’t end at the end of the last speech. The topics we debate will surely be relevant in the world outside of Interregnum, and hopefully we can nurture and encourage our debaters to propose ideas that will spark discussion and action long after the final timer dings.
This is what our student body is capable of, and this is what we should expect of our peers, our debaters, and of each other.