How to Debate

NickOtani's picture
Submitted by NickOtani on Fri, 2007-09-21 03:37

It may be instructive to examine some of the basics of formal debate.

Informal debate on messageboards is free and easy. Someone makes a statement, and someone else questions or challenges it. Then there is a reply, and perhaps others join in.

Sometimes, things go wrong. Insults can take the place of rational arguments. People can feel as if they are being ganged up on. It can become an uncontrolled personality contest rather than a reasoned debate. This leads to a bad experience for some people and convinces them that debate is not productive.

Things can go wrong even in formal debates. Engaging in life is never entirely safe. The alternative, however, not engaging in life, is, IMO, not worth living.

That which can be examined in a formal format can be useful to those of us who enjoy the informal formats, just as formal training in Judo and self-defense may be useful in a street fight.

So, with that in mind, let's examine a Lincoln - Douglas type college debate format:

The Affirmative speaker begins and has the burden of proof for supporting a proposition. The second speaker is the Negative and opposes the proposition, must merely show that the Affirmative has not made his or her case but can also introduce a case against the proposition.

A proposition is a simple declarative sentence, usually with the word "ought" in it, and stated in the positive. Examples might be, "Marijuana ought to be legalized," or "Women ought to be allowed in combat."

Too often, in informal debates, people argue back and forth without even being clear about what it is they are arguing. A clearly stated proposition solves that problem.

The schedule of speeches is Affirmative constructive, questions by the Negative of the Affirmative, Negative constructive, questions by the Affirmative of the Negative, Negative rebuttal, and Affirmative rebuttal.

The Affirmative, since he or she has the burden of proof, gets to start and end the debate.

The constructive speeches present the main clash. The first Affirmative speech sets the structure of the Negative's response and the entire debate. It is very important. It presents the points to which the Negative must respond. If it doesn't do this, the Negative can simply say that the Affirmative case is not prima facie, not significant enough to debate. If the case is prima facie, however, then it wins if it is not countered.

The main arguments and counter arguments must be presented in the constructive speeches. The rebuttals are just for summing up what was said in the constructive. It is not allowed to bring up new arguments in the rebuttals. The negative can briefly answer issues introduced by the Affirmative and rebuild, restate main points of the Negative position, and the Affirmative can answer the Negative and rebuild and restate his or her case. It is not fair to bring up a new argument that the Negative won't have a chance to respond to.

A good Affirmative speech leads into the proposition. There may be a witty little quote or saying which quickly introduces a statement of the proposition, and then any terms which need to be defined or explained in the proposition are dealt with.

Following this, there may be a brief history of the issue, why it is significant, why it is interesting, then, there may be an overview of what the rest of the speech will cover, normally two or three supported contentions and, if the proposition calls for it, a plan which implements the proposition, a way marijuana can be commercially produced and distributed and taxed etc. or a way women's needs can be dealt with in combat jobs.

There can be little transition statements which help the outline flow smoothly, but the main sections of the first Affirmative speech must be recognizable. 1. A statement of the proposition (with definitions of terms and a history or statement of significance) 2. An overview of the structure. 3. Two or three contentions which are supported with arguments and evidence. And, if the proposition calls for it 4. A plan which implements the proposition.

The job of the Negative

To review, the Affirmative has the burden of proof, must show why adopting the proposition is better than not adopting it, and the Negative must merely show why the Affirmative has not met that burden. The Negative could go further than that, could argue that it is better not to adopt the proposition than to adopt it, but, basically, the Negative is defending the status quo, the present existing situation without adopting the proposition.

Remember also, in the schedule I laid out above, there is a cross question period after each constructive speech. After the Affirmative constructive speech, the Affirmative opens himself or herself to questions from the Negative. And, after the Negative constructive speech, the Negative answers questions from the Affirmative.

Lots of tactics can go into effect in the question and answer periods. The honest questioner will want to simply make certain of things which may have been a little unclear in his or her opponent’s speech, but one can play Socrates and/or set up the opponent for an attack. One can expose contradictions and weaknesses to be pointed out in the next speech. On the other hand, there are tactics a skilled but slightly shady debater can also use in answering questions. One can, for example, filibuster; take all the allotted time for cross questioning to answer one question. The questioner has to be aware of this and control the situation. Yes and no questions can be effective. Remember how Furman responded at the OJ trial?

Anyway, then comes the Negative constructive. It's important, then, that the negative establish direct clash. If the Negative goes off and talks about things not relevant to what the Affirmative said, and if the Affirmative case is prima facie, then the Affirmative wins by default. If, however, the Affirmative case is so weak as to not be prima facie, if it is not topical or significant, and the Negative points this out, then the Negative wins by default. So, topicality and significant need to change might be the first things for which the Negative looks.

If there is a disagreement about definitions, this should be dealt with towards the beginning of the debate. The Negative must also use judgment as to how long he or she spends on each point. It would be a fatal error to win some small point that doesn't really affect the case and thereby lose the debate. The negative should point out how each point he or she wins affects the entire Affirmative case.

The organization of the Affirmative speech sets the organization also of the Negative speech. Just as the Affirmative said, "Let's look at that first contention..." The Negative does this also. The Negative say reminds the listeners of what the Affirmative said and then refutes it. Now, since the negative only has about as much time as the Affirmative had, the Negative does not have time to completely repeat everything the Affirmative said and also refute it. The Negative must paraphrase, say just enough to let people know which argument is being referenced, and then the Negative can respond to it.

If the Negative leaves something out, the Affirmative can come back, in rebuttal, and remind everyone that such and such was said and not touched upon by the Negative.

However, very often the Affirmative may use a scatter gun approach. It will spread the Negative out so much that the negative may miss something or not be able to cover everything completely. The negative may have to pick and choose the most important points and concentrate on them. Often, one or two points may be enough to collapse the Affirmative case.

The Negative can look for logical fallacies and insufficient evidence. Not all evidence is credible, and there may be conflicting evidence the Negative can present.

If the case has a plan, workability issues might be raised. How is the Army going to deal with pregnant women on the front lines? How are all the hygiene problems going to be worked out? If these problems are not dealt with convincingly by the Affirmative, then there is no way the proposition that women ought to be allowed in combat jobs can be adopted. Even if the Affirmative was convincing on the contentions, it could lose it on the workability of the plan.

I should also say something about tone. If the Affirmative seems like a nice, soft-spoken type, a hard blasting Negative can alienate an audience, even if the hard blasting negative is more logical than the Affirmative. Not that Joseph McCarthy was logically right, but soft-spoken Joseph Welch made him look real bad in the McCarthy hearings in the 50's.

Much can be said about perception. Some people think both Nixon and Kennedy said the same things, but there was something about the way John F. Kennedy said things which convinced them that he clearly won the debate.

I don't particularly like how form is valued over substance, but it is there. Those of us who know enough about issues and arguments aren't fooled by appearances, but it is also something we must deal with. It's a shame to be right but nobody listens because they don't like us personally. Some of debate is salesmanship and politics.

Remember, the rebuttals are merely quick reviews of why each side thinks it won and the other side lost. No new arguments are allowed in the closing rebuttals, and they should be much shorter speeches than the constructive speeches.

Is this interesting to anyone? Do you agree with me that this can be instructive to those of us who are interested in debate?

bis bald,


( categories: )

Well, in some cases...

NickOtani's picture opponents don't really deserve fair treatment. When they make unsupported accusations, it is impossible to identify what isn't there, an argument and evidence.

bis bald,


Then it's a shame that

Richard Wiig's picture

Then it's a shame that that's not actually what you do 


I'd rather identify my opponent's argument as accurately and as fairly as possible,


NickOtani's picture

...just cleave to the question at hand, dismiss what your opponent has to say--in fact, ignore him--and steamroll any point to the contrary of yours.

In other words, pull your head out of your ass and don't sweat it.

Always works for me.

There is a difference between appearing to win a point because one has a more dominant personality than one's opponent and actually being more logical and accurate. I'd rather be more logical and accurate. I'd rather identify my opponent's argument as accurately and as fairly as possible, point out its inadequacies, where it is wrong or invalid, and then repeat my own point, which is free of such inadequacies and untouched by my opponent's unsuccessful argument. In other words, I'd rather win on substance, not just perception.

bis bald,



Ross Elliot's picture

...just cleave to the question at hand, dismiss what your opponent has to say--in fact, ignore him--and steamroll any point to the contrary of yours.

In other words, pull your head out of your ass and don't sweat it.

Always works for me. Eye

This reminds me of a Phil

This reminds me of a Phil post.

edit: I see that point has already been made!



NickOtani's picture

True, concisness is helpful sometimes. E.B. White certainly thought so. However, there are times when a few extra words can make something more descriptive and effective. "Four-score and seven years ago" is not as concise as "87 years ago", but it is more elegant. Patton said, "If you can't get them to shine their boots when you tell them to shine their boots, how are you going to get them to die for their country." What he meant was "Well-trained troops fight best." However, if he would have simply been concise, he would not have been as expressive and clear and memorable.

bis bald,



Peter Cresswell's picture

Is Mr Otani turning into Phil Coates?

I think we should be told.

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

* * * *

**Setting Brushfires In People's Minds**

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I find conciseness to be

Mark Hubbard's picture

I find conciseness to be helpful Nick.



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