Dr Tim Squirrell is a writer, broadcaster and researcher. He focusses on internet culture and extremism, specialising in the far right and misogynist extremists.

Going beyond "why is this true?": improving generic feedback on analysis

One of the most frustrating pieces of feedback to get as a debater is “you needed to analyse that more/better”. When you ask what that means, you’re often told that when you make an argument, you need to answer two questions: “Why is this true?” and “Why is it important?”. If you enquire a little further, you’ll find that those questions need to be asked constantly, at every level of your argument, until you bottom out at some piece of analysis that can’t really be disputed.

Two quick things that I want to add that I think can help to elucidate this a little bit for those who might be struggling to implement this feedback and improve.

What’s the difference between “assertion” and “analysis”?

First, there’s no qualitative distinction between “analysis” and “an assertion”. An assertion is something you say that’s “unproven”. What constitutes being proven (in debating) is: does this seem like the reasonable person listening would instinctively disagree with it or intuitively think it’s incorrect?

Some things are harder to prove than others. If you say “on our side one person dies, but on yours, five people die”, then you don’t also need to add “and death is bad”, or provide reasons that death might be bad. Why? Well, both sides of the debate are using the same metric to judge the outcome: death. But also, we intuitively understand that death is bad. If you said “on our side, one person is badly maimed, but on your side one person is killed”, then again, we intuit that the death is worse. To undo that intuition would require a lot of work, probably using rhetoric to convince us that the life of the maimed person is so transformed by their experience that it would be better if they had simply died.

Analysis, then, is just a number of assertions stacked on top of one another in a trenchcoat. If the bottom assertion is one that everyone in the debate agrees upon, then that’s fine. If, however, your bottom assertion gets contested - say, someone decides to argue that death might not be that bad after all - then you’ll need to add another link underneath it in order for your trenchcoat-wearing argument not to topple over.

Calling something an “assertion” is a rhetorical tool used to say that it needs further substantiation. Imagine putting on an Australian accent and saying, “Speaker, they told us that many people would die. What they failed to tell us at any point was why death is bad. They simply asserted it.” All you’re doing is saying that you wish to contest the premise that death is bad.

So: assertions are just individual lines, stacked on top of one another they make analysis, and that in turn forms an argument when it’s directed at making an overarching point.

Going beyond “why is this true?” and “why is it important?”

The second thing is arguably more important. Let’s imagine you’re proposing the motion “This House Would ban religious schools”. You want to make the argument that these institutions are bad for students. If you stand up and say, “religious schools are bad for students, and therefore we should ban them”, that’s an assertion (see above). I tell you in feedback, “you needed to analyse that better. When you’re constructing the argument in prep time, ask yourself ‘why is this true?’”. That’s not particularly helpful, because I’m telling you to ask that question about an argument without any kind of specificity.

One way around this is to tell speakers to go for an actor-centred prep time. Think about the different groups affected by the motion, and then think up arguments that apply to them, and then ask “why is this true?”. That’s fine, however, there’s another way of going about this which might be more helpful (if you want to know why, that’s a subject for another post).

Instead of just asking why something is true, add in a few extra sub-questions. For whom is it true? Where is it true? To what extent is it true? When is it true? Each of those questions should spark a number of trains of thought. In our religious schools example, the first question would open up a number of actors: LGBTQ kids, girls, kids raised in a faith from birth with no other option, kids who aren’t religious but whose parents want them to go to a good school, and kids in really extreme religions. From there, you can ask “why is this true?” for each of those sets of people. To what extent allows you to demarcate and delimit the scope of the impact upon each set of people: it might be that the effects upon a queer kid in a Catholic school are quite severe, for instance, whereas the effects of a moderate Anglican school on a girl might be less impactful. When is this true allows you to access time-scales and think about whether impacts accrue to people immediately, or whether they might come about in their future. Where questions allow you to situate the analysis, both geographically (in which country, where in that country, etc) and in contextual terms (in the school, at home, at church, and so on). 

Asking these extra questions allows you to add a great deal of extra depth and breadth to the arguments you’re making. It’s essentially a “what, where, when, why, how” set of questions, but incorporated into the framework of trying to generate arguments that work in a debate. It’s not just “why is this true?”, but a whole set of other prompting questions that let you think deeply and carefully about how, where, when and why different motions will affect different sets of people.

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