The Power of Debate



Debating societies are often thought of as the preserve of the privileged class, yet OBV intern Robert Austin, believes that debating is a skill to be learned and enjoyed by all. Having just returned from a European-wide debating competition Robert Austin shares his views on the power of debate.

Last week, I joined approximately 500 people from across Europe gathered in Belgrade, Serbia for the European Universities Debating Championships. I was there competing for my University, the School of Oriental and African Studies as was my girlfriend, who competed for the University of Bristol.

Hundreds of teams from dozens of institutions across the continent spent close to a week engaging in competitive debates over a number of issues; some current affairs, others more philosophical in tone and yet all underpinned by the same idea – the open exchange of ideas and arguments through reasoned and rational debate. While neither of us won, we and many others took part in an activity of which the rules are relatively simple – two sides argue for or against a particular motion before a panel of judges decides who is the most convincing and therefore the winner.

This may seem inconsequential and pointless to most (and competitive debating probably won’t grab public attention the same way many Olympic events have any time soon), but being able to freely express your opinion clearly and articulately is important for many reasons, both political as well as personal. Debating, be it in a competitive setting or within the wider political discourse, provides a platform not only for your own ideas to be aired, but for others to respond in disagreement as a means to work out potential solutions to problems or maybe even to politely agree to disagree after the discussion.

The ability to tolerate the views of others is vital to the functioning of a democracy and this was keenly felt by the Organising Committee of the competition, who understood and impressed upon us the significance of hosting such an event in a country where freedom of thought and speech is only a recent development and intolerance of differing ideas had once led to a decade of civil war.

This new openness was tangible outside of the debating chamber too, as any fears I had of open discrimination either directed at me or displays of affection between myself and my white partner were quickly allayed as it became apparent that people didn’t care for my appearance or our interracial relationship anymore than people did back home. The old, brutal images of the Balkans were just that – old, and while there still are unresolved issues in Serbia and the wider region, the changes that we managed to see for ourselves shows how an open exchange of ideas and arguments can help change societies for the better.

For such changes to work effectively however, all people must feel able to take part in this enriching activity. Debating encourages people to think critically, make links between ideas and themes and provide the in-depth analysis required to win an argument based on logic. Not only does it encourage greater analytical skills, but it also encourages confidence in communication, which is vital for succeeding in everyday life.

The importance of such skills highlights something which I have noticed when debating – the lack of Black participation. Very few Black debaters routinely attend competitions, and while there is a strong Asian presence, take up of Debating at university by Black students seems to be very low, reinforcing the image of the activity being the preserve of white, upper-class public schoolboys which puts off many BME and female students from taking part.

Divisions within the school system may also play a part, with independent schools more likely to dedicate time and money to debate training which becomes evident once these coached pupils go to university. Thankfully, there are attempts to equalise the playing field, increasing BME participation in the process.

Debate Mate is a charity founded in 2008 to help improve social mobility through Debate mentoring in schools located in our inner-cities. By focussing on the critical thinking and communication skills promoted by debating, Debate Mate aims to increase the aspirations of pupils, inspiring them to achieve academically.

A by-product of this is that a pool of debaters from non traditional backgrounds, many of them from BME groups is being created by the programme, matching the dedicated support given to debating in private schools. If these successes continue into university, it seems highly likely that the days of there being few Black faces visible in the lecture theatre between rounds could be over. The further effect of this is the potential to break down barriers to all professions, thanks to the application of the essential skills learned and creating ensuring that there is no debate, that the BME voice – will truly be heard.

Robert Austin