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Laws of Debate

Debate is a larger question than is generally understood. Every man is debating daily, either with himself or someone else. A man debates questions with his household or with friends. Whenever a difference of opinion arises between two persons, they instinctively debate it together. This term has, also, a public signification, and is applied to discussions in Parliament and formal debates on public platforms. Correspondence in newspapers, reviews and periodicals often takes the form of controversy. All forms of controversy, where one person seeks to justify his opinion against the differing opinion of another, is debate; for intellectual life is a perpetual discussion. Conversation is often a friendly debate. Error of idea is everywhere an antagonist.

Some people are so disquieted by contrariety of opinion that they fear the fate of the Catholic and Jew, who debated together the grounds of their faiths, and ended by the Jew becoming a Catholic and the Catholic a Jew. Some fear discussion because they are like the judge who said he understood a case when he had heard only one side—it was the other side which perplexed him. The risk of this perplexity he must undergo who would be wise.

Before taking part in debate, a man has to vindicate to himself the uses of debate.
1. It creates two-sided people.
2. It instils toleration.
3. It proves truth which may be trusted.
4. It puts into the mind the sense of reasoned truth.
5. It sows the seeds of new truth.

Those who object to these things may as well keep clear of debate, for they will misuse it and distrust it.

The first rules to be observed in taking part in debate is:—
1. To state your case.
2. To clear your case.
3. To prove your case.
4. And then sit down.
There was once an old doctor, the lecturer on logic and rhetoric at a Scotch university, who received the fees from the pupils on entering, who used to say to them, when they had finished their term, that there were only two rules to follow—'One was, when you have anything to say, say it in as few words as you can; the other is, when you've said it, hold your tongue.'

General Ludlow held that a man should say what he means and mean what he says. This is as true in debate as in morals. In debate, you must not only say what you mean—but know what you mean. The audience will soon find out if you do not know it.

1. The speaker must state his case that the hearers may understand to what he asks their attention; without this information they cannot judge what his object is, nor tell when he is relevant or when he digresses. In stating your case give the other side of the case—if you know it. The contrast will make your meaning clear, and show that you know what your case is. There is a fine instance in the writings of Toulmin Smith—'Decentralization or administration by localities, is that system of government under which the greatest number of minds, knowing most about the special matter in hand, having the greatest opportunities of knowing about it, and having the greatest interests in its Local Self-Government, pp. 395 to 409, well-working, have the management of it or control over it. Centralisation or administration by departments is that system of government under which the smallest number of minds, knowing the least about the special matter in hand, having the fewest opportunities of knowing about it, and having the smallest interest in its well-working, have the management of it or control over it.'

2. Then the speaker must clear his case—showing plainly what he is aiming at, making his question quite distinct, that it may not be mixed up with something likely to be advanced by another disputant. He must free his main terms from ambiguity, so that ignorance cannot mistake what he intends, nor an adversary pervert his meaning. On a certain occasion a witness said he knew the accused 'the moment he obtained a full-faced view of his back' A back may have its peculiarities, but a 'full-faced' view of it is difficult to obtain. General Grant said of his rival for the presidency (General Hancock) that, sitting behind him, 'you knew when he was pleased, for you could see him laugh behind his ears.' I have seen other Hancocks do this.

3. A speaker must next prove his case, so that the reasons of his argument may be evident. Here he should adduce facts which cannot well be disputed in support of his contention, and employ, if he can, such illustrations as make his meaning clearer.

4. Having done all he can to put the hearer in possession of his case—he gives place to his adversary within the allotted time—if the time be prescribed.

A barrister will occasionally state a complex case to the jury before him, beginning with the simplest circumstances, continuing with the more difficult, arranging the facts in such order that the series throw light on the most obscure points—that the whole case may be fully understood. When he feels this to be accomplished he returns, recapitulates, selects those points he wishes to have most weight, puts them before the jury freshly, prominently, and as forcibly as he can. If his brief affords it, and he has no scruples, he can, like Charles Phillips, in his defense of Courvoisier for the murder of Lord William Russell, seek to fix the guilt on an innocent man; or, like Sir Fitzroy Kelly, shed tears to attest his belief that Tawell was innocent, whom he knew to be guilty. But he who does this loses evermore the confidence of those who know it.

In debate, it is a great point to have the main point in mind, and never to lose sight of it. An argument is like a picture which has a point to which all lines converge. It was O'Connell who said an orator should always know what he is aiming at, for when a man aims at nothing he is almost sure to hit it.

Young debating societies have a tendency not to know what the point is, and to wander from it when they do know it. Upon the chairman is cast the trouble of discerning what the main points are in the mind of the person who opens the debate, and if this has not been made clear to the chairman, he should ascertain what the main points meant to be debated are, and state them himself to the meeting before the discussion commences. Having once made the question unquestionably plain, he should remind every speaker of it who forgets it, and point out to him when he is wandering therefrom. But a chairman should not use much strictness in doing this, because some speakers cannot see a point, and cannot keep to it if they do. Therefore, if they were strictly called to order they would be incapable of speaking at all. But though it might be desirable, for the sake of affording young speakers practice, and of training a society in the habits of debate, to allow disputants to speak in the best way they can, the meeting should be incidentally kept informed when the question is getting mixed up with something else. In a debate, if speakers introduce irrelevant subjects, the good or evil of these different subjects will be entered upon. Other speakers arise and combat what other speakers have said upon these subjects, and in less than half an hour hardly anybody remembers what the actual subject before the meeting was. Now, the business of disputants is to discuss the speech of the opener of the debate, rather than the speeches of each other. What other speakers say should be referred to only, or mainly, so far as it relates to the topic before the meeting. Discussion is excellent discipline in the art of discovering what a point is and what relates to it. Discussion is always valuable, inasmuch as it elicits contrariety of opinion that nobody could suspect, and misconceptions which nobody could imagine. No person can be said to entirely understand any subject until he has debated it with sharp-witted people. In the art of seeing all round a question, a night in a discussion room will do more for a man than a month in a library, that is, supposing the president has sufficient knowledge of the speakers before him to bring their various powers into play, and at the same time supposing that the speakers have powers which the president can elicit and bring into action.

No opponent should be accepted whose sincerity cannot be assumed, since it ought not to be questioned in debate. To give an adversary credit for good faith is economy in reasoning, since you have only to refute his principles—not himself—which leaves you all your time and force for the greater and more useful task. Find no fault with his grammar, manner, intentions, tone. Attend only to the matter. Hear all things without impatience and without manifest emotion. Let your opponent fully exhaust his matter. Encourage him to say whatever he thinks relevant. Many persons believe in the validity and magnitude of their positions, because they have never been permitted to state them to others—and when they have once delivered themselves of their opinions, they often find for the first time how insignificant they are. There are some persons whom nobody can confute but themselves. When you distinguish such, your proper business is to let them do it. Learn to satisfy yourself and to present a conclusive statement of your opinions, and when you have done so, have the courage to abide by it. If you cannot trust your statement to be canvassed by others—if you feel anxious to add some additional remark at every step—suspect your knowledge of your own case and amend it on further reflection. Master as completely as you can your opponent's theories, and state his case with manifest fairness, and, if possible, state it with more force against yourself than your opponent did. The observance of this rule will teach you two thingsyour opponent's strength or weakness, and your own also. If you cannot state your opponent's case you do not know it, and if you do not know it you are not in a fit position to argue against it. If you dare not state your opponent's case in its greatest force, you feel it to be stronger than your own, and in that case you ought not to argue against it.

The course here suggested will be as useful to truth as to the disputant. Great prejudice may often be disarmed by daring it. In this manner, Gibbon delivered his argument in favor of an hereditary monarchy. 'Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in this world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate, without an indignant smile, that, on the father's decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colors, but our serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice that establishes a rule of succession independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal power of giving themselves a master.'

In Gibbon's days the discovery of a removable master had not been made.

Debate should have for its object the vindication of some truth seriously disputed. The Dutchman, who regarded debate as a duty, being pressed as to the value of a dog for whose loss he had brought an action, said, 'Nothing; but let him pay for it.' When his adversary was asked whether it was true that he killed the dog, he said, 'To be sure I did, but let him prove it,' which was foolish, but not more silly than many disputants of pretension, who will dispute for disputation sake, where there is nothing real or useful to contend for.

For the adjustment of a difference a man should understate his case—should make no material assertion unaccompanied by the proof—make the fairest allowance for his rival's excitement (if he be excited), put a fair interpretation on his words and acts. All whose suffrages are worth having will make just judgment. The reason of so many departures from this rule is the want of courage, or the want of sense. It is the opinion of the ignorant that if a man does not bluster and retort, he is deficient in spirit. This apprehension often betrays weak men into violence, and to prove themselves independent they become rude and insolent—whereas courage pursues its own way without ostentation, preserves its independence, corrects misrepresentation, repairs any injury it may have unwittingly done, and answers slander (if there be slander) with the truth. No wise man answers a fool according to his folly. He shows that it is folly, and abandons it to die by its own hands.

Hamilton's Parliamentary Logic gives maxims, which that experienced tactician had treasured up, observed, or invented, many unworthy, some shrewd:—
'State what you censure by the soft names of those who would apologize for it.
'In putting a question to your adversary, let it be the last thing you say.
'Distinguish real from avowed reasons of a thing. This makes a fine and brilliant fund of argument.
'Upon every argument consider the misrepresentations which your opponent will probably make of it.
'If your case is too bad, call in aid the party: if the party is bad, call in aid the cause.
'Nothing disgusts a popular assembly more than being apprised of your intention to speak long.'

Having had experience in the ways of adversaries—the unscrupulous and the fair—I noticed the rules they ordinarily followed, and found, as Wordsworth's little girl said of her brothers and sisters, 'We are seven,' which were these:—
1. To show that the objection made against what you mainly said is wrong, and that you were in the right. For this course to succeed one must be very clear upon the subject, and make it very clear to others that it is the objector alone who is in error. If this cannot be done, the matter requires some consideration.
2. Not to take any notice of the objection raised; but if he who advances it is a person whose opinion has weight, his objection will have force, and tell against you, whether you take notice of it, or not.
3. To notice the objection made, and affect to see nothing in it. But it is necessary to bear in mind that, if other people happen to see something in it, your alleged want of penetration will not serve you.
4. To admit there is 'something in it,' but maintain that it is a mere misapprehension of your meaning. In that case, you must explain what your meaning was, or that expedient will not answer.
5. To allege that your own statement is open to two distinct interpretations, and argue that your critic has adopted the wrong one. This course, however, is attended with some risk; since it is the duty of a speaker to be aware of double meanings, to choose one, and leave the hearer in no manner of doubt which sense was intended, and to fix that sense so that the meaning could not be intelligently misunderstood.
6. Admit that your statement was open to some objection, making light of it, giving the hearer the impression it was very unimportant, and that your critic could not have anything very serious on his mind to make so 'much ado about nothing'—by which means the unobservant hearer will be hardly sensible that you have fallen into any error at all, and even be disposed to regard the objector to what you have said, as a trivial and captious commentator. But the intelligent observer will distrust you.
7. The remaining course open is to admit frankly you were in the wrong. Careless phraseology, an inaccurate argument, or a conflicting statement (whether fallen into unawares or not), is an imposition upon the mind of the hearer, and a waste of language, since it weakens and obscures the proper argument. Therefore, the right thing is to express yourself under obligations to an auditor who pays you the great compliment of considering what you have said, and takes the trouble to amend what has been unwittingly left defective.

Persons, really honest-minded, do often find a difficulty in frankly admitting that they have made a mistake; but it is far better to cultivate the habit of admitting an error, which you see to be such, than to foolishly persist that you are right, and to persist in the foolishness of the mis-statement which everybody sees to be so, and which you ought to see yourself. To try to create the impression that you are never in error, is to pretend to infallibility—it is to pretend that you know everything, that you know it always, and that you are so perfect that you never forget it or overlook it. Everybody knows that there never was any person of this description; and to pretend to be, or to imagine that you are, such a person is to betray to every reflecting reader that you are ignorant as well as conceited. A real lover of truth is glad to have any error into which he may have fallen pointed out, that he may avoid it in the future.

'If neither is good,' says Hamilton, 'wound your opponent,' which may be Parliamentary, but is discreditable in the speaker and a waste of public time.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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