Debate Society Takes Their Arguments Across the Globe

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By Nicole Hoehle

Planet X is in the early stages of human development. Should it adopt communism or capitalism?

This motion was debated in the final round of the 2015 Oxford Inter-Varsity Debating Competition. On the weekend of Nov. 13, the Middlebury Debate Society sent its three most experienced debaters to compete in this prestigious event. The society is a student-run organization that brings together students who love to argue for and think about both sides of a polarizing issue.

This fall, the Society sent students to England to compete at the Oxford Tournament, Cambridge Tournament and Cambridge Women’s Tournament. These three events are among the most esteemed debate competitions in the world, bringing together debaters from many different countries.

The competitions are held in the British Parliamentary Style, a common form of academic debate. In this format, debaters are presented with the topic, called a “motion,” and assigned a stance only fifteen minutes before the debate. They fulfill one of four roles, the “opening government,” “opening opposition,” “closing government,” or “closing opposition.” In this short period of time, each student prepares a seven-minute speech that they will use to try and sway the judges. Debaters need to be ready to argue for or against any motion that is thrown their way.

Elizabeth Lee ’17 is president of the Middlebury Debate Society and attended all three of the international competitions. “What you really have to do is learn a lot about what’s going on in the world right now and understand the most prominent theories in philosophy,” she explained. Staying up to date with current events is key when preparing for a competition. “The Economist is the debater’s favorite news source,” Lee added.

The motions that were considered at these events spanned such diverse topics as the feminist movement, climate engineering and whether or not Western democracies should abandon an Olympics hosted by Russia.

“One idea that I really liked [debating] was a right to emigration,” Lee recalled. Students discussed whether a government should pay for people to immigrate to a different country if they can’t afford it themselves. The central question became whether or not the failure to fund such a trip would be comparable to forcing someone to stay somewhere they don’t want to be. “If you have a fundamental disagreement with the country you’re living in, presumably you should be able to leave that society,” Lee reflected.

From Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, the Middlebury Debate Society will be sending students to the World Universities Debating Championship. This is the largest debate tournament in the world and some of the best debaters from every continent will compete. Every year it is held in a different country. Last year it was hosted in Selangor, Malaysia and this winter it will be in the historical port city of Thessaloniki, Greece. Over 70 different nations will be represented.

“Getting to know people from all over the world that share your passion for debate is great,” Lee added. There are some clear differences in the way that teams prepare for the competition, of course. At several universities in England, for example, a debate society comes with it’s own exclusive union, grand chamber, and library. The benefit of the international tournaments is that societies like these will encounter groups that are less formal in their approach. There is more than one way to argue persuasively. “Staying in the U.S., you don’t realize that there are so many different styles of debate, and that they are all very effective,” Lee explained.

The Middlebury Debate Society also participates in events closer to home. About once a week the students attend a domestic debate tournament. And during J-term, Middlebury will be hosting it’s own event. The 2016 Middlebury Debate Invitational will take place the weekend of Jan. 16 and will include college teams from all over the East Coast.

No previous debating experience is needed to join the Middlebury Debate Society. Getting involved with the organization can be a rewarding experience for those who want to think about today’s biggest questions as well as those who are more interested in the competitive aspect. Lee explained, “It’s a lot of work, but it’s really worth it. We have a really great community. We put on social events and are trying to find ways to foster dialogue.” The Debate Society is currently working with President Laurie Patton to plan a joint event that would encourage controversial conversations.

If you are someone looking forward to debating today’s most pressing questions around the dinner table this holiday season, the Middlebury Debate Society might be just the place for you.