FAQ: great debaters to watch and what to do when someone twists your words

Following the final instalment of this month’s Argument Clinic workshop series at Regent’s University in London, below are the three questions I was asked to write about by my class. Enjoy!

Question #1: what are the best debates to watch when learning how to judge them?

Best tip I can offer is don’t make things too complicated and just start with a short TV debate or a ten minute excerpt of one. This will help you boil it down to the two or three key disagreements that decide the outcome of the debate.

Watch the debate once the whole way through to get an idea of what it’s really about. Consider what the motion would be if it were held in academic conditions and then list the key questions the speakers will need to answer and the assumptions they will need to test. You can find out more how to do this in my earlier post on audience engagement.

Here are a few TV debates that I would recommend watching, two of which we have covered in the Argument Clinic, and one we haven’t. I recommend them, not because they showcase debating skills at their best, but because they include a combination of well made arguments and poorly made arguments, which makes them a useful study resource.

Question #2: who are the best people to watch to see a debate at its best?

Ironically, one of the best debates I recently watched came from the most unlikely source: Prime Minister’s Questions. It was Harriet Harman’s final debate before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader and it was on the pressing issue of the refugee crisis in Europe.

First, Harriet Harman showed admirable restraint in her questioning. It would have been very easy for her to use the photos of the tragic death of a little boy on the shores of Turkey that had just gone viral at the time to jump on the Prime Minister and call him every name under the sun.

Instead, she spelt out the steps she thought would be necessary for responding to the crisis and asked him to set out a clear plan of action for achieving them. In return, the Prime Minister calmly explained why he felt directing resources to supporting refugees in camps in and around Syria was the best course of action. In addition, rather than dismissing Harman’s sensible suggestions, he explained why he thought they would potentially exacerbate the crisis.

It cannot be over-stated how difficult it must have been to have such a constructive debate at a time when both leaders were under a great deal of pressure to accede to public demand to let in more refugees into the country.

Regardless of whether you agree with the positions set out or not, this was an example of debating at its best — it is only a shame that this standard is the exception and not the norm for Prime Minister’s Questions.

OR watch these two videos to see one argument being taken apart by another.

Below is an interview Russell Brand gave to Newsnight in which he urged people not to vote. If you’d rather not watch the whole thing, then skip ahead to 5 min 35 sec,

Now here is a response from debate expert and local councillor, Steve Doran:

What makes this such a strong response is not that Steve has simply set out a better alternative, but she has analysed the capacity of Russell Brand’s own idea to achieve his own stated goals and proved why one contradicts the other. Note how she was able to achieve this without resorting to any of the high and mighty language or impassioned rhetoric that Brand did in his interview.

Question #3: How do I respond to someone who tries to get a cheap laugh in a debate by twisting my words?

This came up while analysing the nuclear power debate (top) in which Sun columnist, Kelvin MacKenzie mocks Simon Hughes’ proposal to harness solar power from the Mediterranean as the ‘sun-dried tomato solution’. The quip gets a laugh because of the link between the Mediterranean and sun-dried tomatoes combined with the fact that what Hughes is proposing is a quite radical and unfamiliar territory for much of the audience — ripe for mockery. This is what is known as the straw man logical fallacy — you can watch an entertaining guide the most commonly used fallacies on the internet in the video below.

As for offering a few suggestions on how to respond to the Straw Man attack — a great resource to use for pretty much any question is social media site Quora. You can read what their contributors have to say about responding to the Straw Man fallacy here.