Senin, 05 September 2011

Chapter 1: Definitions


Chapter One: Definitions.

Under either “semi-divine” or “most reasonable” definitional rules (the two most common rules for university competitions), the fairest and most effective way to define a debate is the same. Apply two tests:

1. Context
2. Spirit of the motion

Context. Simply put, what is happening in the world or a specific region that relates to the topic? It could be a new law or ruling being debated by a government/organization. It might be a conflict has flared up or been the subject of significant media attention. Maybe it’s just that a long-standing problem has recently gotten worse, or a particularly bad example of an on-going problem has come to light.

In any case, if a significant event has occurs that seems to be related to the topic, then those are the issues that should mostly be the focus of the debate – subject to the second test.

Spirit of the Motion. The ‘spirit’ of the motion means, “what sort of debate was envisioned when this motion was chosen? This test relies on the assumption that topics are chosen for a good reason – namely that a particular issue or conflict would make a good debate. Part of assessing the ‘spirit’ of the motion is being sure that your definition will generate a good, reasonably balanced debate, with interesting/important issues that are complex or sophisticated enough to be sustained over the course of the debate. There is no point defining the debate to a very controversial issue, which nevertheless is basically a single issue, and cannot be effectively extended into a debate with multiple speakers’ -each raising new issues.

So, if the context to the debate suggests that a certain issue or situation should be the focus of the debate, and that would be sufficient to meet the spirit of the motion, then assuming you applied the tests correctly, you have a good definition for the debate.

NOTE: it is important to be aware of the cultural and political differences that can exist between participants at a given tournament. For example, when assessing the context to a debate, if you are at a national tournament, then issues that are dominating the domestic media are naturally reasonable basis for deciding the context to your definition.

However at a regional or international competition it can be more difficult to avoid operating under the assumption that issues that are controversial in your country, are also controversial in other countries. Of course this doesn’t mean that all definitions must be about the US or some other 3rd country so as not to disadvantage yourself or your opponents, but you incorrectly assessing the context of the debate is a sure-fire way to violate the “unfairly place-set” provisions of the rules.

The basic test of whether a place-set definition is fair is not whether or not your opponents do know anything about that issue, but where it is reasonable to assert that they should, based on the competition and the experience of your opponents.
For example it is reasonable to assume that debaters should have a working knowledge of the political situation in Israel, because it’s frequently reported on in the media. However, the conflict in the region of Nagoro-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is far less widely known by even the most well read members of society.

So if a topic relates generally to separatist conflicts, and significant events have occurred in both Israel and Nagoro-Karabakh (context test), then it would be fair, and wise, to define the debate as relating to Israel because it is more likely to yield a good debate (spirit of the motion test).

Naturally, with a more tightly worded topic then applying the tests might indicate that the Nagoro-Karabakh conflict is the appropriate definition, but make sure you are fairly applying both tests and not just looking for an opportunity to show off your knowledge of obscure places.

The more vague or ‘open’ the topic is, the more ‘legitimate’ definitions there are available to you (i.e. the more open a motion is, the greater the number of options that technically will be equally valid as result of applying the definitional tests). So your obligation is to pick a definition that is firstly very clear (don’t ever debate vague principles and ideas – trust me, it wont be a good debate – nail the principle down to something specific and practical – as you will see in the example below) and then choose the definition that will give the best chance of creating a good debate; which is a definition that you can reasonably assume your opponents can understand and respond to properly.

Otherwise the result might be a definitional challenge (which ruins the debate and your speaker scores) and/or angry and confused adjudicators. Plus you’ll get a bad reputation as a team that plays dirty – even if you didn’t mean it!

Example: “That we spend too much money on the stars”.

Since ‘stars’ could relate to astronomy or celebrities you can reach a fair definition by applying the two tests.

(1) Context: Has there just been a significant event relating to either field (eg, the explosion of a space shuttle, or a controversially expensive film or contract)? Basically has there been something in the media that seems to relate to this topic?

If only one meaning of the term ‘stars’ has a strong contextual basis, then most likely  the definition should go in that direction. In either case, apply the second test.



(1)    Spirit of the motion: if there is a relevant context to the debate, then ask yourself which definition will yield the best debate? Which has the most interesting, controversial, debatable issues? Which has issues that both sides should be aware of?

If one answer stands out on both tests, then you have a winner. In the event of a tie (think carefully, make sure it really is) then either is a good definition, but make an extra effort to set the debate up clearly and explain the relevance of the definition.

What do you need to ‘set up’ a debate correctly? Well you need a good definition, and you should explain the context you used to form that definition (as well as the definition itself) in the first minute of your speech. As part of establishing the context you should always explain what the status quo is, because as you will see later, your understanding of the Status Quo might not be the same as other people in the room (for reasons of culture, religious, etc) but if you explain your understanding of the status quo, then everyone will understand where you are coming from when you set up your model.

This might sound like a minor point, but making sure both sides agree on what the status quo is can often be incredibly important. One reason is because the nature of the status quo defines how ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ line your case is – which is the subject of the next chapter.


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