Alex Massie

Privileged Motion No 3, Mr Chairman...

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Via Julian Sanchez, here's a documentary I hope reaches DC soon. Just the ticket: a movie about - drum roll please - debating. Like Julian, mind you, I'd rather it focused on proper debating  - by which i mean, naturally, British Parliamentary style - rather than the mad, mad, mad world of American Policy debating which is not, frankly, debating at all. If you don't believe me just watch the movie's trailer which, however unfairly, gives the impression that Policy Debating is an activity for autistic weirdos rather than an elegant - if disputatious - entertainment aimed at, you know, persuading* people of the validity of your case. Instead, the Policy format treats debating as though it were some tortuous never-ending lawsuit rather than a convivial after-dinner activity over port and cigars.

As best I can recall from my own debating days (some of them - well a couple - halcyon!), the American style is alternately baffling and dreary, prizing the ability to spit out facts and arguments as though one were a machine-gun wielding automaton with precious few points on offer for style or wit or the possession of a vaguely plausible manner...

Mind you, the American approach has, I think, infested proper debating too. The days of the amateur are long gone. In the good old days - by which I mean the period up to and including 1997 - a fellow could turn up and rely on little more than whatever he held in his cranium supplemented by a cursory glance at that day's newspaper. If you were really keen you might consult an old copy of The Economist found tucked beneath one of the Conversation Room sofas. Preparation was for people who, frankly, weren't very good at debating...

Changed days my friends. The Americans, aided and abetted by the Australians, spread the word that debating was about knowledge not persuasion. Professionalism arrived and changed everything. Suddenly folk were turning up to tournaments armed with ready made cases covering every damned issue of the day. These were people who prided themselves on knowledge of things called "carbon sinks" or who took a keen interest in obscure developmental and animal rights issues.

Even the ones who weren't from Durham University started carrying briefcases and one had the disconcerting impression that debating had ceased to be a lark and become some ghastly CV-enhancing exercise... The days of Et in Arcadio Ego were left behind long ago**. O tempora, o mores indeed...

*I'm minded, for instance, of an occasion in which a Glasgow University debater flummoxed his opponents by referring to the (admittedly oft-overlooked) Great West African paw-paw dispute that made Togo a mango no-go area. Though I grant that perhaps you needed to be there.

**On the other hand, some things have improved. The keen young chaps and chapesses now charged with the sacred task maintaining the immortal flame of the Dublin University Philosophical Society do a vastly, almost-immeasurably more impressive job of stewarding the Phil than we crusty fogies ever did back in the day. More power to their collective elbow. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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