Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

Strategy for debating from Opening Government

Strategy for debating from Opening Government

Opening Government is dreaded by new speakers, but often loved by those who've been speaking for years. Intuitively, the former issue can be ascribed to the fact that you have fifteen minutes to read the motion, get to the room, figure out what the words in the motion mean, brainstorm arguments, discuss with your partner what you want to run, write your notes, and get your head into a space that's going to allow you to give seven minutes of cogent analysis on something you often know little to nothing about.

The latter, though, takes a little more explanation. I would posit that the main reason that more experienced teams are often more positive towards OG is because of the control it grants you over the debate that's about to happen. From the perspective of an inexperienced speaker, debating from Prime Minister amounts to giving a seven minute speech and then listening to nearly an hour of other people telling you how wrong, inadequate, shallow or offensive you were. But if you understand the motion and the clashes and trade-offs involved, it's possible to craft a tight PM speech that is difficult to assail, dictates the course of the rest of the debate, and has material left standing even by the end of the Opposition Whip speech.

How does this work?

1. Anticipating the clashes

It's a truism that debates always have two sides. Probably the key mistake that people make in Opening Government is that they forget this and end up proving things that are tangential to the debate or never going to be contended. The more things you say that the Opposition agree with or are happy to concede, the less time they need to spend responding to you and the more material they're going to be able to get out. Ideally, you want the Leader of Opposition to stand up and have to spend their entire seven minutes responding to you because there's so much to unpack.

How can you make that happen?

Let's say the motion is THW ban zoos. You might walk into prep time and immediately start drafting arguments about cruelty to animals: you start a logical chain on why animals must have rights similar to those that humans possess based on their capacity to form and pursue preferences, experience pleasure and suffering, and possess consciousness of some kind. You adequately formulate the principle that discrimination between humans and animals purely on the basis that humans are humans amounts to speciesism, and is not a legitimate argument within the debate. You therefore say that, given animals have rights, one of those rights must be to freedom of movement and freedom from exploitation. Given that zoos amount to the enforced capture, enslavement and exploitation of animals for the purposes of entertainment, you say that we ought to ban them and allow animals to roam free.

The problem is, the Opening Opposition can then stand up and immediately concede the first four minutes of analysis that you've just given on animal rights. They say, "absolutely, animals have rights. We just think that we're better able to defend those rights on our side of the house", and then they give a list of reasons: zoos allow us to perform research to better cater not just for the animals in our care, but also for animals in the wild; there are some animals whose habitats are entirely destroyed, such that releasing them into the wild would condemn them to certain death; the educative function of zoos is what inspires children and teenagers to engage in conservationism and donate to wildlife charities; and so on.  They beat you, because they prove that they fulfil your principle better than you do.

How do you stop that from happening? Anticipate the arguments.

They could say "zoos allow us to perform research on animals". You might pre-emptively say, "in the same way that we wouldn't allow humans to be kept in captivity and have research performed on them for the benefit of themselves and others if they were unwilling to or incapable of consenting into it, we argue that animals - because they have the rights we outlined above - should not be instrumentalised in this way". That then means that Opp now has to prove either that animals are dissimilar enough from humans that they don't have the rights you stated, or that instrumentalisation of humans for research purposes is legitimate in some circumstances you outline, for some set of reasons. Both of those are harder burdens for them to take on.

To pre-empt the point about habitat destruction, you can argue that it's not reasonable to artificially keep a species alive simply for the purpose of keeping it alive. There's no intrinsic value to a species existing except the lives that constitute that species, and as such we would allow those animals to live out their days on a reserve or similar before shutting down those facilities.

Then finally, you can run some mitigation on the educative potential of zoos, pointing out that zoos are not available to the entirety of the population, including those who live in rural areas or can't afford the time or money to go. Comparatively, things like documentaries allow you to see the existence of animals in their natural habitats, and also to witness first hand the way those habitats are being destroyed. To the extent that there's an education, it's not something that's exclusive to zoos.

None of these responses is perfect. Rather, they're simply enough to make it much more difficult for the opposition to dance around you, accept your analysis and then use it to bolster their own arguments. By anticipating the arguments they're going to bring, you're able to make their job a lot harder, and make it a lot simpler for your arguments to stand the test of the whole debate.

2. Making tactical concessions

You can't win every argument. If you try to fight every battle, everywhere, all at once, you're probably going to lose some of them, and sometimes the time that you plough in to trying to win some of the clashes is time that would have been better spent shoring up some of your other arguments or impacting them further.

That means that sometimes making concessions can be a good strategy. For example, in the debate above Opp has the ability to point out that some species have had their natural habitats destroyed, such that they would die out if they were placed back there. This is something that's a little difficult to contest (though I've given a reasonable attempt above). Instead, you might want to tactically concede this. You can say something like, "of course, it's regrettable that some species are unlikely to be able to survive on their own in the wild. However, species become extinct all the time: there's no reason that we ought to value the existence of a species in and of itself. In addition, this is true only of a very small number of species, and their habitats having been destroyed they will never be able to go back into the wild, and so any of their number who exist will do so solely in captivity of the rest of their days. We don't think that's any kind of life for them, and so this is a harm we're content to swallow." Not only does this allow you to move on to other things, it also makes it relatively difficult for the opposition to contest the claim: they're going to have to re-assert a lot of ground there in order to make the point theirs. They'd have to show that these animals do have a life worth living in zoos, or that their habitats have a plausible route to rehabitability, or that there is some other value to having them there that's more important than just entertainment and education for kids. Given that you've also incorporated some weighting (showing that it's a relatively unimportant impact), they would also have to work to make it seem important in the debate again.

Again, this is not a perfect solution, but it's one that dramatically increases the amount of time that the other teams in the debate would have to devote to a point in order for it to be credited to them, and in turn reduces the amount of time they have to make arguments that will stick.

3. Incorporating weighing and trade-offs

One of the most significant ways in which you can improve the tightness of your case and make it easier for judges to weigh it against other material in the debate is to incorporate some analysis of the trade-offs that are present in the debate, and show how they fall on your side.

For example, let's consider "THW introduce eye-in-the-sky policing in urban areas with high crime", which is essentially about having drone patrols above rough neighbourhoods. There's a very obvious trade-off in this debate of liberty for security. If you're on government, you're going to have to navigate that trade-off, and show two things: first, why security is a more important good than liberty, broadly construed; and second, why even if you value liberty above security, you should still support this policy as it facilitates greater liberty overall.

So you might say, for example, that having extremely effective surveillance systems in place is (i) a disincentive to crime, because you're aware you might be caught; (ii) makes crimes easier to solve and criminals easier to catch, which in turn bolsters (i) because criminals think they're more likely to get caught; and (iii) that crime makes people feel unsafe in their neighbourhood even if they're not directly affected by it. The latter then feeds into an analysis of rights, that essentially says that the ability to act unsurveilled is less important than the ability to feel safe on your own streets, because bodily autonomy is the right that facilitates all others (including freedom of expression and the right to privacy, which are presumably the two that you might be at risk of losing). Moreover, you can then say that if this policy is successful (which hopefully you'll have proven it will be) at reducing crime, then this will in turn reduce the need for this policy, which will in turn  facilitate greater liberty in the future.

Here you've incorporated into your argument both trade-offs ("we're happy to trade off some of the right to privacy for people to feel safer") and weighting ("security facilitates liberty, so it's more important"). This makes your speech much tighter, as now an opp team will have to unpick a number of different things and show: (i) why liberty is more important than security; (ii) why the policy is unlikely to be successful; (iii) why there might be some other consideration (e.g. discriminatory policing) that makes liberty particularly important for some group; and so on.

4. Anticipating clarifications

One of the most unnerving things that can happen to you in PM is for CO to stand up and ask you a point of clarification about something you hadn't even considered. You then flub some kind of answer, and they smile to themselves, safe in the knowledge that they're really going to screw you in about 30 minutes' time.

There's no hard and fast way to avoid this: even the best debaters sometimes get caught off guard by some clever chink in their case's armour. But broadly, you can start to try to anticipate these questions before you get them. From there, you can either build the responses into your mech, or you can just leave it for when you get a point of clarification and look like you really know your stuff.

How do you do that?

Essentially, it involves asking yourself and your partner what the most plausible questions might be. You simply need to brainstorm potential issues that might come up, and how you can deal with them. For example, if you're banning zoos, are you also banning nature reserves and safari parks? If you're introducing drone policing in high crime areas, how are you defining high crime? What kinds of powers will those drones have? How will the evidence that they collect be stored and used? These are all questions that you need to have some kind of answer to, because they can be fuel for "gotcha" questions from the other side. But in addition to that, they can also serve some use to you: you can make your case as airtight as possible by leaving little room for things to go wrong. One of the key argumentative strategies you have to pursue from opposition is to say "this simply won't work, and it will make things worse". It's much harder to make that argument stick when the Opening Government team have very clearly laid out the mechanism by which something will work, and then shown why that makes it likely that it'll achieve the ends that they want it to achieve.

Old Cambridge Union Debate Motions, 1995-2014

Old Cambridge Union Debate Motions, 1995-2014

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